Cut off your arm, move on

October 17, 2008

It will probably be several weeks before the full effects are known. Dallas ISD is about 500 teachers lighter today than it was two weeks ago. Yesterday the forced layoff notices went out, to teachers whose positions could not be saved by another teacher’s having retired, or simply resigned.

There is great irony. The year started with a mass meeting of Dallas’s 20,000 or so teachers, with an inspirational speech from a Dallas fifth grader. After nearly a decade of shaky leadership at the district office, most people thought Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa was close to established trim in the ship of educational state. Even Dallas Mayer Tom Leppart showed up to congratulate Hinojosa and cheer on the teachers.

News of an $84 million shortfall, the result of finance and payroll offices failing to integrate their systems, followed a couple of weeks later, and it’s been a downhill slide for teachers since then. NEA and AFT affiliates point to a lot of problems in Dallas ISD financial controls. How could they not notice an $84 million hemorrhage?

(Let me note here that I’ve been at private corporations that made errors of similar magnitude. Generally the problems were dealt with quietly. “Writeoff of bad investment” was what the annual reports usually said, or something like that.)

Originally, we heard 750 teachers would go. There are about 250 schools in the district — three teachers per school. Welcome to “Survivor, Dallas ISD.” Who gets to vote whom off the island?

Morale is low. It’s been interesting to see who used the turmoil as just an excuse to get out. It’s been interesting to see how many teachers had illnesses suddenly flare up. Requests for information or work from the central offices get a lot more sneers from teachers. In the teacher’s work areas, in meetings in the hallways, cynicism rose to all time highs.

Our department of about 20 people lost two — one position that was not yet filled, and one retirement. That’s a 10% hit. Overall, our school lost just under a dozen teachers. So much for the “three per school” hope. It’s still unclear how some classes will be covered come Monday. Some schools will have to shuffle their student/class assignments completely. We’re starting over on the year, eight weeks in.

Some of the effects are predictable, some are not.

  • Special education teachers laid off complain that they are paid from federal funds. At least one will sue.
  • Students whisper to other teachers, wondering whether their favorites will go (why don’t they as the teacher?); sometimes the students hope a teacher will be terminated.
  • Already noted, illnesses appear to be up.
  • Several teachers with offers from other districts resigned, collecting a double paycheck for the next few months. Many of the teachers leaving Dallas are among the best. One we lost had just started what promised to be a brilliant career teaching math.
  • Parents are confused. We had report card/parent-teacher conferences last Monday. One family asked me whether schools would open at all come next Monday.
  • Class reshufflings yield gaps in education, when a student moves from one class where subject A had not been covered, to another class where subject A was taught in a project three weeks ago.

So, damage is done that cannot be undone. Teachers who had spirited devotion to their jobs and the district less than two months ago, hunker down.

Remember that rock climber who got his arm stuck under a falling rock? In 2003, Aron Alston amputated his own arm to get to freedom after a few days with his arm stuck.

That’s a good metaphor for Dallas schools right now. We’ve amputated most of an arm. No time to mourn. Move on. Except, there was no rock, and there was no chance to make such a clear calculation.

Ask not for whom the bells toll.

Tally from the Dallas Morning News:

The cuts

About 375: Teachers laid off Thursday, representing 3 percent of the district’s 11,500 teachers

40: Assistant principals and counselors released Thursday

152: Number of noncontract employees laid off last week, including clerks, office managers and teacher’s assistants

About 100: Number of unfilled, noncontract positions eliminated last week

62: Central office members laid off

About 100: Number of vacant central office positions eliminated

More than 200: Number of employees who have voluntarily resigned

Total: More than 1,000 total positions eliminated

Projected savings

$30 million: Expected savings from job cuts and unfilled vacancies

$38 million: Expected savings from cutting various programs throughout the district

Total: $68 million

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